But I am not clear about the precise definition of a classic. Professor John Sutherland believes that
classics "don't just cross time, they cross frontiers". And Oxford academic Patrick Hayes claims that "whether something is a classic gets judged over an awfully long time, by readers who return to the work again and again and repeatedly discover in that work something compelling or
But these aren't definitions, merely descriptions. They don't help us to identify a classic, and they
certainly don't relate in any manner I can see to the latest addition to the list of Penguin Modern Classics.
Fever Pitch by Nick Hornby is a book which I loved from the very first paragraph, the very first sentence. So many of its themes - no, it is not solely about football - resonated with me. Like his subsequent novel, much of it could have been about me. I recognised and laughed at my own obsessions; even more so when Fever Pitch was moved by American movie makers from North London to Boston, from the Arsenal to the Sox.
So a lovely book, a well-written book,a very personal book. But a classic? Only in the sense that it is an exemplary memoir of its kind, which is the Nick Hornby kind. It is not Ulysses. It is not The Great Gatsby. It is not The Aleph or the The Plague or Pale Fire - all of which are titles are taken (almost) at random from the list of
Penguin Modern Classics which Fever Pitch now joins.
Earlier this week, my friend Neil Bevan and I devoted a bottle of St Veran to a conversation about detective fiction, what the Americans call mystery. We started with Dennis Lehane, and worked backwards "down these mean streets" in company with Richard Stark's Parker, Robert B Parker's Spenser and John D MacDonald's Travis McGee until we reached the original "man who is not himself mean", Raymond Chandler's Marlowe.
I am delighted to note that Chandler features on the Penguin list. I am less pleased to see, in a small paragraph buried within the plethora of Olympic coverage in my newspaper, that John Banville, writing as Benjamin Black, is to revive the character of Marlowe in a forthcoming novel.
I have the utmost admiration for Banville in both his literary manifestations, but I am concerned. Robert B Parker attempted to complete an unfinished Marlowe novel, and failed dismally.
Parker of course wrote his PhD on Chandler and taught a course on crime fiction at Boston. His own protagonist, Spenser is an obvious hommage to Marlowe. He understands the nuances of the genre and the style. But he failed. Banville is a more literary writer, a winner - thanks in no small part to the passionate advocacy of Rick Gekoski - of the Booker. As Benjamin Black, he writes excellent detective stories. But I doubt he can take on the Master.
The great Italo Calvino wrote: "a classic is the term given to any book which comes to represent the whole universe, a book on a par with ancient talismans". Chandler's Marlowe novels, I believe, qualify on this level.
Fever Pitch, excellent though it is, important though it is, hugely enjoyable though it is, does not. Sorry, Nick.
Today's listening: Chansons Sans Paroles. I thought Neil meant the Mendlessohn; in fact, he meant the Brahms. But I've been listening to the Mendlessohn anyway, played with immaculate precision and elegance by Daniel Barenboim.